Featured Interview – Johnny Sansone

Cover photo © 2022 Marilyn Stringer

imageJohnny Sansone was born and raised in New Jersey, the son of a saxophone playing schoolteacher who was in Dave Brubeck’s Wolf Pack band during World War II.  But he has now lived more than half of his life in the rich musical city of New Orleans.  In his early years, Sansone toured as the featured vocalist and harp player in Ronnie Earl’s Broadcasters, and he later worked with legendary bluesmen John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Rogers, and Robert Lockwood Jr.  Sansone has impressed many with his talent as a multi-instrumentalist, playing harmonica, accordion, and guitar. However, what often stands out even more prominently is the beautiful tone of his incredibly powerful singing voice.  Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Sansone when he was performing at the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas.

Sansone has been a full-time musician since the early 1980’s, and cherishes the opportunity he had to witness performances by some of the blues legends such as Howlin’ Wolf, Clifton Chenier, Big Joe Turner, James Cotton and Junior Wells.

“I consider myself fortunate to have been on this career path in the 1970’s and 80’s. I was able to see so many legendary blues musicians. They were my heroes. I had their records. Then I found out that they were just regular people, and they were interested in the fact that I was interested in their music, and eventually friendships were forged. In the early years of Chicago blues, the great musicians weren’t as guarded as you might think. They were easy to approach. Both James Cotton and Jr. Wells shared firsthand information with me, and we ended up as friends for many years. The legendary guys seemed more organic to me.”

“Blues, the first American roots-music, can be traced back to regions, like all cultures, food, art, and just basic survival. A favorite example was my good friend and guidance counselor the late Lazy Lester. Known as a Louisiana Swamp-Blues man, Lester’s music was a product of his musical region between the New Orleans and East Texas border. Blues, R&B, gospel, country, Cajun, and zydeco can all be heard in his music. Later, the Fabulous Thunderbirds would hot rod his songs to a whole new generation of fans. Absorbing the simplicity of the music is not easy. It’s kind of like cooking. You could only use salt and garlic and make something tasty. But mixing in certain proportions with other spices changes all directions.”

image“Like a fine wine or whisky, you must start with the finest ingredients, distill it down, ferment it, and then present it after years of experimenting. But it’s up to the consumer to decide. A four-piece band belting it out at a local blues jam can be just as satisfying as the latest hot-shot on the main stage.”

Sansone has been referred to as a Zen-like philosopher whose observations about life have led him to be recognized as an award-winning songwriter. He noted that, for him, songwriting is an activity that occurs constantly, and being a good songwriter is one of the traits he admires most in others.

“It’s rare to find a musician who not only writes, sings, and solos, but also sells the songs live on stage.  Songwriting is a long process for me. I make notes every day.  I’ll look at a situation or listen to someone talking, hear what they’re going through and try to relate to their pain or joy. Then I’ll take all the notes when I’m ready to write. I’ll surround myself with all those little note papers and my instruments and lock the doors. Sometimes I get in such a deep trance that my mind can drift off into a visual place, kind of like inside of a movie. I might start at 9 am and suddenly realize its dark outside and I haven’t left the table. I’ll bang around on a song until it makes sense and then I’ll record a demo. I’ll listen to it over and over, picking it apart.  Then the editing starts and that is extremely time consuming.”

Because of that process, Sansone does not find it easy to try to co-write with others, although one exception did result in a Grammy nomination this year for Tab Benoit’s Production of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s release, Bloodstains and Teardrops.  For that album, Sansone co-wrote several songs with Boudreaux and played guitar, accordion, and harp on the session. He has also collaborated on a few occasions with another excellent songwriter, Anders Osborne, to produce his albums.

“My third record and break-away release was Crescent City Moon, which I produced myself. I started thinking about all the music that I cared about, then started writing songs that represented my entire record collection. For example, the title track is a hybrid of Clifton Chenier and Otis Rush. I stayed away from straight-ahead blues and took those influences and mashed them up. The title track won song of the year at the Offbeat Music awards and got me signed to Rounder Records with a follow-up record called Watermelon Patch. Some years later I found myself in a band called Voice of the Wetlands All-stars along with Tab Benoit, Cyril Neville, George Porter Jr., Dr John, Johnny Vidakovich, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Waylon Thibodeaux and Anders Osborne. We did a record together and went on the road. I realized that Anders and I were saying a lot of the same things on stage during solos and fills, and it opened my ideas even more.”

image“I asked Anders for his help producing my next record, Poorman’s Paradise. He said he would, but he needed a demo of the songs first. I recorded the demo solo playing just guitar and piano and put it in Anders mailbox. I didn’t hear anything from him, so I figured he didn’t like the songs and it wasn’t going to happen. I finally did get a hold of him, and he told me the songs where great and that I should release it as is. But I wanted to record the songs with a band. A good producer visualizes who would be the best person to play the parts of the songs you are doing, and possibly shape them into something you didn’t think of yourself. I respected his judgment and we set a recording date. This was soon after hurricane Katrina, and some of the musician had lost everything they owned, so the title track really hit home for those guys. It was nominated for Song of the Year at the BMAs.”

Sansone again collaborated with Osborne for what is perhaps his best-known album, The Lord is Waiting and the Devil is Too.

 “Anders had the idea to have it sound like a Hound-Dog Taylor thing with Harp. He wanted to strip the songs down, and make it all about me, only singing and playing harmonica. He brought in Stanton Moore to play drums and percussion, and we decided not to have a bass player, meaning the whole bass frequency could be filled with kick-drum, bottom guitar strings, and harp. We spent a whole lot of time getting harmonica sounds to work at Dockside Studios. It’s a couple hundred years old, and all cypress. I took one of the mics and put it in the rafters up at the top of the stairs, so we ended up using the building as a speaker. It fattened the sound, picking up the whole building space. Anders’ lowest string became the frequency where the bass pulled the bottoms together with the huge kick drum, so we could take it and make it bigger. Then we ran everything through a 2” analog tape loop.”

Many have wondered about the story behind the powerful title track, a song so moving that Sansone’s performance of it led to a standing ovation every night during his tour with Tab Benoit’s Swamp Jam Tour.

“People ask me all the time to ‘play that Devil song’. Some don’t even know the name of it. The concept is that you have three decisions on how to conduct yourself. You can say ‘Fuck it, I’ll do whatever I want, and I’ll take whatever I want,’ or you can be in the middle, and not do anything wrong, but not do anything right, either. Or you can strive to do good for others and try to be helpful. It’s about the concept of the Lord, regardless of what God means to you.  It’s the ideal, and that every day you have the choice of which path you’ll go down.”

image“The song was triggered by an incident many years ago when I was on my way back from a gig at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. I had to pull over because I noticed the trailer door had sprung open. I went around to the back to see what may have fallen out, and suddenly I felt a gun in my back. I began to run but stopped and turned around. I realized I had a lot of cash, (mostly smaller denomination bills since it was the door money,) but it made an impressive roll. I told the guy if he wanted the roll, he had to stay cool. He took the money and ran off. He had a bandana over his face, and I’ll never forget the look I could see his eyes. I could tell he was an insanely desperate and crazed young man.  He made a decision that night that truly affected me. The song, ‘The Lord is Waiting and The Devil is Too’, won song of the year at BMAs.”

A few more all original album releases with Anders came after that.  Once It Gets Started had Anders on guitars and, among other guest musicians, included a 91-year-old veteran from the Howlin’ Wolf Band, Mr. Henry Gray, on Piano. That record featured another BMA song of the year nomination for ‘The Night the Pie Factory Burned Down’.

Next was the release of Lady on the Levee with a group of guest musicians that included Anders and John Fohl on guitars and Ivan Neville on organ and piano. The last Osborne-produced release was Hopeland, with Anders and North Mississippi Allstars brothers, Luther and Cody Dickinson, trading off on different instruments, along with John Cleary on piano.

Sansone’s latest release represents a turn to a more traditional blues sound. Producing it himself this time, his album, Into Your Blues, has already received significant critical acclaim, and introduces eleven new original songs. It also features  some impressive guest artists, including Little Freddie King, and harmonica master, Jason Ricci.

“This album gets back to the subject of contemporary and traditional blues. I had a lot of people who asked me over the years why I hadn’t made a ‘real’ blues record. I’ve spent all these years trying to find my place, which was not dead center of the blues, only based on it. I went back to my record collection idea, focusing on my favorite singers, guitar players and harmonica players, and wrote my own versions. I brought in Mike Morgan from Dallas, and Johnny Burgin from Chicago to fill the guitar chairs. I could say, ‘This is like a Jimmy Reed song,’ and that’s all it took. They just knew what to do.  I know these guys and trust their knowledge and skills. I didn’t use a demo this time. I just picked up a guitar and played my ideas. I would only have to play it once, and then start recording. Most of the songs came together on the first take. With all of the wonderful contributing musicians, I got what has been banging around inside my head for a long time waiting to come out! I’m extremely happy with the positive reviews and feedback so far.”

imageJason Ricci was also impressed with the latest album and noted this about Sansone:  “I’ve always loved his harmonica playing but as I’ve gotten older, seen him live more and hung out with hm, the thing that makes me REALLY love Johnny is his sincerity in everything he does, whether it is incredible singing, amazing songwriting or fiery harmonica playing  The dude is the same on and off the stage and I really like that the older I get.  I’m kinda over the ‘show’ at this stage in my life.  I want to see life SHOWN on stage.  I feel Sansone every time I hear him and it’s been a privilege getting to know him living here in New Orleans.  I feel blessed.  He’s been very kind and welcoming to me since day one and for that I’m grateful.”

As someone who rarely rests after releasing an album, Sansone was asked about his plans for the immediate future.

“When Covid hit I had some nice tours planned, but that all went away. Those are doors that shut, and I don’t know if they’ll open again. I particularly looked forward to a tour I was going to do in Italy. They care about music there, and there are a lot of really great musicians there, as well as in France and Spain. I realize that I only have so many years left so I don’t want to waste time waiting for things to happen.”

Sansone has been considered fiercely independent all these years because of his choice to release his records since 2000 on this own label, Short Stack Records. When asked how that’s worked for him, Sansone grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

“In order to reach a larger audience, I might need to reconsider that choice. I’m not quite as fierce as I used to be in that department.”

Hopefully we will have many more opportunities to appreciate Sansone’s clever and unique approach to roots-based music. You can learn more about Johnny Sansone’s music, including tour dates and how to purchase his albums at: www.johnnysansone.com   For booking email contactshortstackrecords@gmail.com.

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